A few years ago, I chose a Lenten theme that focused on the “death of the church as we’ve known it.” For all of the Sundays of Lent, I walked the congregation through the various stages of grief. I talked about the many losses we had experienced, and wove them through denial, anger, etc. through to acceptance. On Easter of that year, I tried to highlight the joy of new life, not just for us as individual Christians, but for us as a church.
For most of the season, parishioners politely listened and tried to absorb some of the messages. One of the more effective messages I was so sure of, was the Sunday when I paraded out an old rotary phone, a typewriter, a record turntable and asked a provocative question that went something like: “We don’t use these old things anymore. Why do we insist on having worship, and much of the rest of church life, look and feel almost exactly how it did fifty years ago?”
There was an awkward pause. Someone finally spoke up and admitted to still using a rotary phone. And someone else said that they still use a typewriter and still another person looked completely perplexed and seemed to try to ask, “How does anyone listen to music if they don’t have a turntable?”
There are ways in which the church is stuck in the past because at least some of its members are stuck in the past.
At Old South, I struggle sometimes with how we embrace “new” things, while still being welcoming and accepting of those who have not embraced new things. E-mail, for instance. For me, email is not a new thing, yet I have several active members of Old South who do not use email. I make some attempts at keeping them “in the loop,” but it is increasingly difficult.
At the end of that Lenten journey through the stages of grief, one of my older parishioners who has been a member of the church for a very long time, came in to meet with me. She had in her hands the church newsletter piece that I had written introducing the theme; I could see that it was all marked up. She was upset. Why, she asked, did I insist on being so negative? Why, in my right mind, could I ever choose, over such a long period of time, to focus on such a depressing subject?
Yes, death is negative, and difficult. But, as Easter people we must confront the ways of death in order to experience the new life that Easter brings. Jesus didn’t go directly from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem right to the glorious experience of resurrection. Death, and suffering, happened in between.
Many mainliners, especially in places where lots of other aspects of life are undergoing significant change and loss (the population and economics of Central Maine, for example, are very different than they were fifty years ago), have a hard time seeing themselves in the throes of the reality of Good Friday in what’s happening to the church that they love.
But, we are in a Good Friday time, with all of the confusion, pain, heartache and heartbreak, and actual death that comes with it. But, our faith teaches us that new life will come. We have a hard time trusting that message, though, and more than that, we struggle to cling to the old ways—as if we can resist death, as if our beloved friend can stay with us, despite the slowing heartbeat.
In this holy time of year, my prayer is that Old South, and churches like it, will begin to find ways of moving faithfully through the lessons and the reality of the stories we highlight at worship—these challenging, painful, but ultimately wonderfully joyous, stories of Jesus Christ and his early followers. Somewhere in there, though painful as well, is our story, and it pulls us into something very much alive, but unexpected, and new.